Linemen figure to dominate top of the NFL Draft

It's not nearly as sexy as Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III dominating the top of the draft board, but it may be just as important.

The guys who protect the quarterback figure to be the headliners of the 78th annual NFL Draft when things kick off Thursday night at New York City's famed Radio City Music Hall.

A signal-caller has been chosen with the No. 1 overall pick in 10 of the past 12 NFL years, but that trend isn't likely to hold up this time. A pair of offensive tackles -- Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel and Central Michigan's Eric Fisher -- are shaping up as the most likely options for the Kansas City Chiefs, who possess the top overall selection.

Since 1967, only three offensive linemen (all tackles) have been chosen with the No. 1 overall pick led by Hall of Famer Ron Yary, who was taken by the Minnesota Vikings in 1968. Ohio State standout Orlando Pace was chosen No. 1 overall by the St. Louis Rams in 1997, and Jake Long, who was signed by the Rams as a free agent this offseason, was taken with the top spot in 2008 by the Miami Dolphins. Long was also the last non-quarterback to be selected with the top choice.

Joeckel is the consensus favorite to go to Kansas City, an outcome which would make him the first Texas A&M player in history to be chosen No. 1 overall. He would also join four Aggie players who have been chosen in the top five of an NFL Draft, including Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller, who was the No. 2 selection in 2011 by Denver.

Fisher, however, is also a legitimate option for Andy Reid and will join San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowl offensive tackle Joe Staley (No. 28, 2007) as the only players in school history to be selected in the first round of the draft. Meanwhile, Oklahoma tackle Lane Johnson should follow both Joeckel and Fisher rather quickly.

The three best left tackles in the process are a part of a group of 23 prospects who will be in attendance for Round 1 of the draft.

Four players from BCS national champion Alabama: guard Chance Warmack, offensive tackle D.J. Fluker, running back Eddie Lacy and cornerback Dee Milliner will be in the Big Apple, as will four players from Florida State: quarterback E.J. Manuel, defensive end Bjoern Werner, offensive tackle Menelik Watson and cornerback Xavier Rhodes.

Others scheduled to be in Gotham on Thursday are BYU pass rusher Ezekiel Ansah, West Virginia slot star Tavon Austin, North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper, Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, Oregon edge rusher Dion Jordan, LSU hybrid Barkevious Mingo, Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, LSU safety Eric Reid, Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, Mississippi State corner Darius Slay, Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro and West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith.

Smith is considered the best of a downtrodden quarterback group with some scouts predicting that no signal-callers will go in the first round. Others, however, have predicted as many as three will be tabbed.

One of them, USC quarterback Matt Barkley, is hoping to become the fifth Trojans quarterback to be selected in Round 1 of an NFL Draft, which would be the most of any college in the modern era. Smith, meanwhile, could be a top 10 selection or tumble all the way to the second round.

There will be 254 overall selections in this year's draft, including 32 compensatory choices that have been awarded to 16 teams that suffered a net loss of certain quality unrestricted free agents in 2012.

The Indianapolis Colts will have the honor of selecting this year's "Mr. Irrelevant," a tongue-in-cheek title bestowed annually upon the last player chosen in the process.

The New York Jets (Nos. 9 and 13), St. Louis Rams (Nos. 16 and 22) and Minnesota Vikings (Nos. 23 and 25) have two selections in the first round while Seattle, Tampa Bay and Washington do not have first-round picks.

Round 1 of the draft takes place on Thursday night, while Rounds 2 and 3 are on Friday and the final four rounds finish on Saturday. Teams are permitted 10 minutes per selection in the first round, seven minutes for Round 2 and five minutes to make their choices in Rounds 3 through 7.